"Super-soothing ingredients” used to be the gentle buzzwords that made those of us with
sensitive skin listen up. Now, we’re more likely to be intrigued if we’re told what’s not in a product. It’s a shift in mindset that Dr. Sandy Skotnicki, a dermatologist and the medical director at the Bay Dermatology Centre in Toronto, welcomes. “I give patients products with no fragrances, no parabens, no dyes, no botanicals and no anti-aging ingredients—and they see results.”
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If your skin isn’t ready for its proverbial close-up, Skotnicki recommends that you do an inventory of just how many products you use every day. If you find you’re following an 18-step routine (it happens to all of us), she advises trying a “less is more” approach. Dr. William McGillivray, medical director at Project Skin MD in Vancouver, agrees. Start by scaling back your routine, he says, and include only the products you truly need—for example, cleanser, moisturizer and sunscreen. From there, reintroduce the most essential products for your skin type. It’s also important to be aware of the chemistry between the products you use, adds McGillivray. “You could use a moisturizer, foundation and concealer separately and be fine, and then you could use them all together and suddenly your skin is reacting.” Make sure that you reintroduce one product at a time and use it for a week or more before adding the next, he says. But what makes one person’s skin more sensitive than another person’s?
WHAT LIES BENEATH
“Sensitive skin has a lower threshold for irritation,” explains McGillivray. That’s because there is usually an underlying issue, known as a “compromised barrier function.” This occurs when the skin’s top layer, the epidermis, loses its ability to filter irritants or prevent them from penetrating the lower layers. It also means the skin is struggling to retain moisture, says Dr. Ian Landells, a dermatologist and the medical director at the Landells Clinic in St. John’s, N.L. To keep your skin moisturized, look for products that contain ceramides, which are essential lipids that help restore the barrier function of the epidermis, says Landells. With an unreliable top layer at play,
sunscreen use is especially crucial, adds McGillivray. “Look for oil-free, water-based sunscreens with a physical block that acts like an umbrella over the skin,” he advises. Physical sunscreens contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which deflect rays by floating on the skin’s surface.
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Keeping sensitive skin hydrated all year round is as essential as receiving an email alert for NET-A-PORTER.com’s end-of-season sale. Seriously.
Dry and sensitive skin can erupt into contact dermatitis— angry patches that sting and burn. While most people use moisturizers in winter, they tend to set them aside once spring arrives. “When fall comes around, they assume that because their skin has been great for months, they don’t need to worry about it anymore,” explains Landells. “Then the weather turns cold and dry and, sure enough, their skin flares up again.” It’s kind of like dating a series of bad boys: It takes a while for us to notice there’s a pattern at play.
ENEMIES OF STATE
Anything that leeches moisture from sensitive skin can be a problem: soaps, body washes, long, steamy showers with Fassbender. (Okay, that last one might be worth it.) “The
drier the skin, the more sensitive it is,” says Landells. Another possible irritant: fragrance added to products. And swapping synthetic for natural isn’t necessarily a slam-dunk defence. Most fragrances are botanically sourced (meaning they are distilled or extracted from plants, flowers or fruit) and many of them contain potentially irritating essential oils, such as tea tree and yarrow.
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Skotnicki believes that reducing stress levels can minimize your skin’s sensitivity. “If somebody has high blood pressure, you give them a pill but you also tell them to try yoga,” she says. “Then, perhaps the dosage of blood-pressure medication can be lowered because the yoga is helping. It’s the same thing with your skin. If you’ve got a stressful job and you have psoriasis or eczema, if you do something to decrease your stress, you’ll probably have a less-active skin disease.”
Be on the lookout for “fragrance” or “parfum” on labels. According to the Environmental Working Group, these words are used to describe an undisclosed cocktail of potentially irritating ingredients.
Be mindful of laundry detergents, household cleaners, candles, soaps and hand sanitizers. If you wash your towels or bedsheets in a detergent containing an irritating fragrance, your skin isn’t getting much of a break.
Avoid antibiotic ointments, unless prescribed by a dermatologist. “Bacitracin, an over-the-counter antibiotic, is a common allergen,” says Landells.
The Canadian Dermatology Association (dermatology.ca) offers the Skin Health Program, which helps Canadians find products that are less likely to irritate sensitive skin.
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